Depression and the Church
Submitted by Jarvis Howe
According to recent numbers from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 6.7% of American adults, about 14.8 million, people have clinical depression. That means that on Sunday, there is a good chance that at least one person sitting in your pew has depression. Before we get to how to identify those who have depression, what exactly is depression?
Many people think depression is simply “feeling blue” or that it is something that people could snap out of if they wanted to badly enough. In reality, the emptiness and despair of depression is much more than the occasional feeling of being “down in the dumps” that everyone experiences from time to time. Clinical depression needs to cause significant impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. There are nine symptoms of depression that are commonly experienced, with five being needed for a clinical diagnosis. Some of the symptoms that distinguish depression from the blues are recurring thoughts of death or suicide and diminished interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities that were once enjoyed.
Unfortunately, the church has not always been the safest place for people to talk about depression. Some in the church have looked at depression as some kind of character defect or a spiritual disorder; as if saying that if someone were closer to God or had more faith, they wouldn’t be depressed. This kind of thinking has prevented many from getting the help they need. The field of mental health has made great strides over the last few decades and depression is now much better understood. Although there can be many causes for any one person’s depression, for some it’s as simple as having a chemical imbalance in the brain. For others, they have become entrenched in negative or unhelpful patterns of thinking that can be treated with therapy.
So how can you recognize what depression looks like in others? This is a question I have heard asked many times, as people who are depressed often are very good at hiding it from others, often for the reasons discussed in the above paragraph. Of the many symptoms of depression, some are much easier to spot than others. For example, you may notice when a loved one doesn’t seem to enjoy the activities that once made them happy, but it may be more difficult to tell if they have a depressed mood, as this is one of the symptoms that is easier to hide from others. However, if it is a person you know especially well, you may be able to notice a shift in mood. Men, especially, may not appear sad, but may mask their sadness with anger. Other noticeable symptoms include a significant gain or loss of weight, or a decrease or increase in appetite most days. People who are depressed also frequently experience insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleep), fatigue, and irritability. Another telling sign is social withdrawal. Depressed people have a tendency to isolate into their own worlds. This is a sign that is especially easy to spot in those who are more outgoing. If you think someone you know may be depressed, talk with them about it. A lot of people are willing to talk about it if someone else initiates the discussion.
A final word on depression and the church: the stigma of depression is slowly disappearing. St. Paul’s is one of the first churches I have ever heard of that has had a counselor on staff. When Pastor Wray and the Board of Elders decided to hire my predecessor, Sonya Jensen, it showed great insight into a section of the church population that had been overlooked. In the future, I fully expect more churches to follow suit.
If you think you are depressed or if you know someone who may be depressed, encourage them to talk to a professional. We are blessed to live during a time when there is more knowledge about depression and more options for treatment than ever before.